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Tom Chaney: A Matter of Honor

Of Writers And Their Books: A Matter of Honor is a review of the novel The Court by William J. Coughlin. This column first appeared 9 March 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Wilson W. Wyatt, Sr.

By Tom Chaney

A Matter of Honor

The Supreme Court is often dividing four-four -- liberal-conservative. Justice Brian Howell, clearly the swing vote, has suffered a stroke, certain to be fatal.

Four cases are before the court. The justices are divided or are perceived to be divided on all four. A quick appointment is deemed politically necessary by the President, for one affects him directly.

One case is that of Sister Agatha Murphy, a nursing nun who has been convicted of the assisted suicide of desperately ill patients. Her conviction was upheld on appeal. She awaits the ruling of the highest court. Unknown to her Herbert Mennen who plans to open a chain of nursing homes devoted to assisted suicide is footing the bill for her appeal. Should the appeal be successful, he is in business.

Freedom of the press is at stake in the second case. A state has passed the Booker law holding news media financially liable for monetary loss in a case where unsupported news stories cause such loss. Reporter Abbot Simmons has discovered a toll bridge which is structurally unsound according to a city engineer. His editor, afraid of the consequences under the Booker law now on appeal, refused to publish the story.

The third case involves civil rights and the issue of quotas and reverse discrimination. A police union brings suit in federal court to stop the firing of white police officers by black administrators. Two lower courts have ruled against the union. The appeal is now before the Supreme Court.

But the heart of the novel The Court by William J. Coughlin [St. Martin's Press 1999] is the fourth case. The sitting President has been placed in office by the death of his predecessor. Bent on election to a term of his own, the possibility of a current Electoral College case has him sweating Presidential ballots.

A case is coming before the court challenging the validity of the ratification of a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College and instituting direct voting in Presidential elections. Enough states have ratified to make the change, but two have reversed themselves. The issue is whether a state may legally "un-ratify." The new President feels he can win under the old system, but not under the new. He wants a Supreme Court justice who will reverse the ratification.

Enter Jerome Green, a lawyer in private practice as a fixer and "distinguished partner of the prestigious law firm of Harley, Dingell, Spear, and Frank, known to everyone as Harley Dingell." Amos Deering, presidential assistant, is dispatched to lure Green away from his firm to vet a candidate for the court -- Roy Pentecost, dean of the college of law at Michigan State University.

Federal Bureau of Investigation and bar association checks have been made on Pentecost at the time of another recent confirmation, but the President wants more.

Green soon learns that the chief executive wants a commitment from Pentecost that he will rule to overturn the lower court which has ruled against his interest.

Time is running out. When Green leaves Washington the stricken justice is still alive. If he is kept alive on machines and the crucial cases are brought up and ties result, the appeals court decisions stand. This doesn't suit the President. He even explores impeachment of a comatose judge as a last resort.

Green is on a Presidential mission but he is also going home. He was raised the son of a professor of anthropology at the school. His brother now has a chair in the same field. They have not spoken since the father's funeral from which they parted in anger. Green's former girl friend, Regina, teaches nursing at the university. She is divorced with two teen aged children. Green is in a loveless marriage with a woman clawing her way to fame in her own accounting chain.

Green's investigation of Pentecost reveals in the dean a mediocre lawyer who is a good salesman totally dedicated to getting what he wants. He had been given, in effect, a blank check to build a first rate law school, and he has done it. He sees through Green's questions forcing him to admit clearly what the President wants the new justice to do in return for the appointment.

Pentecost also finds the weak spot in Green's shell of integrity. Green has asked Regina to leave her career and come to Washington to be his wife. She strips away his protective shell and persuades him to consider returning home. Pentecost offers Green a tenured chair in the law school in return for a favorable report on him to the President.

"The dean thirsted for the canonization of the black robe, the honor of the position. Pentecost was prepared to sacrifice anything to obtain that recognition. Green smiled at his own reflection. And my own honor, he asked himself silently, what about it? How does one weigh honor in making such a choice? He knew the men in the White House trusted him and trusted his judgment. Only the future could reveal (whether he was right or wrong) .... And if he violated their trust only he would know, no one else. It was like the old philosophy question: Is there a noise in the forest when a tree falls but no ear is present to hear it? Is there honor if no one knows about it?"

The Court is one of the better mysteries I've come across in some time. It was first published in 1989 under the title No More Dreams. Coughlin was a successful defense attorney and a distinguished judge on the Michigan bar for 20 years. He died in 1992.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-03-10 00:05:58
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